"Equal" education for All? What Is Happening to the Top Tenth?

February 22, 2012

"Equal" education for All? What Is Happening to the Top Tenth?

[caption id="attachment_1122" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of jscreationzs"][/caption] When I was in elementary school back in the early 1990s I was the fortunate participant in an “experimental” education program that sought to homogenize classes (and I know that’s a dirty word in education today, but humor me). The program identified “gifted” students and separated us for language arts and mathematics instruction. While “leveled” math is still common today, as are “reading groups,” what I was privy to goes far beyond that idea. Instead, each day, about a dozen or so students from each grade were taken out of their regular classrooms and brought to the gifted resource room. There, we read novels above our grade level, wrote several page long “responses” to the books we read, discussed them in groups and gave oral presentations once a month about additional books we read on our own. We were also received word and root-level grammatical instruction that concentrated on parts of words as a means to derive meaning, Word Smith, it was called. I was given this instruction for three years, from third through fifth grade. Then, my family moved and I was put into “regular” classes in junior high school (though I got to go into accelerated math once I hit 7th grade). Sixth grade, for me, was a wash. I literally learned absolutely nothing in mainstream classes, and had similar experiences in 7th and 8th grade (with the exception of “accelerated” math) until finally, in 9th grade, I decided to skip a year of school. It wasn’t until graduate school in 2005 that I finally entered a classroom that even began to resemble that language arts instruction that I received so long ago. While my story is far from tragic, I have always felt that, given more specialized instruction, I could have achieved more. I literally spent three years in junior high bored and unchallenged, which led to trouble, but that’s another story for another time. The real point here is that my tale is not unique. Closing the Achievement Gap Comes at a Cost Since I left K-12 education more than a decade ago, the general tone of testing, No Child Left Behind and closing the proverbial “achievement gap” has completely capped programs like mine. Public schools, and I attended a public school by the way, have instead changed their focus in order to meet state and national standards dictated by legislation such as NCLB and President Obama’s Race to the Top. While thousands of below average students have benefit from these changes, there is another group that has decidedly suffered: the gifted. The Costs of Leaving “High Flyers” Behind This notion of leaving the brightest students behind is not completely lost, however. In September of last year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a comprehensive study that, for the first time, examined high-performing students’ achievement at an individual level. Their results were astounding.
  • First, though high-achieving students would generally remain above the pack, a substantial number (30%-50%) would drop their level of success over time, which is defined by scoring below the 90th percentile.
  • Next, though the “fallers” would still stay high in the pack (generally above the 70th percentile) boys were found to fall at a much higher rate in both reading and math as compared to girls.
  • Finally, though high achievers would grow their abilities over time, the rates at which those abilities grew were slower than the rates of improvement for middle-achievers.
Looking at the Long-Term Implications One of the goals of the Fordham Institute’s study was to shed light on that portion of the student population whose achievement makes them “less” important at times when funding is disputed. No one is denying the importance of bringing up those below grade level. However, if America is to remain on the top, internationally speaking, we cannot ignore the needs and performance of our highest achieving students. Basically, the lack of specialized instruction for those performing above grade level, as well as the needs of those performing below it, needs to be addressed when designing our budget.



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